Pennsylvania: Here's How to Make Sure Your Vote Counts in the 2020 Election

What you need to know, including key deadlines, registration details, and how to vote by mail.

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You don’t have to be the most politically active person to know there’s an election coming up on November 3 -- and the stakes are higher than ever. As a potential swing state, plenty of eyes are on Pennsylvania this election, so it’s important to make your voice heard.

Under ordinary circumstances, voters would mark their calendars and show up to the polls to cast their vote, but due to the pandemic and the precariousness of gathering in-person, this seemingly simple act of civic duty now comes with many more considerations. In Pennsylvania, new cases of COVID-19 are reported daily by the hundreds, which may impact your decision to head to the polls on Election Day. Because of the pandemic, voters in Pennsylvania looking to steer clear of voting in person can request a mail-in ballot. However, with United States Postal Service’s mailing delays -- and President Trump’s repeated attempts to delegitimize mail-in voting and admission he is withholding funding to the USPS to prevent mail-in ballots from being counted -- you may be wondering if mail-in ballots are a sure bet, too. (Add this to other forms of voter suppression, like gerrymandering and voter registration restrictions, which disproportionately affect BIPOC.)

Don't let any of that discourage you from voting. There are many options for you to cast your ballot in person, by mail, or by physically dropping it off at a ballot box. Read on to figure out which option is best for you and how to do it.

What’s the deadline to register to vote in Pennsylvania?

If you want to vote in the November 3 election, you must register to vote by October 19. You can register to vote if you’re at least 18 years-old, a US citizen, and a resident of Pennsylvania as of at least 30 days prior to the election. Those currently incarcerated on a felony conviction are ineligible to vote but they are able to vote immediately after release. You cannot register to vote on Election Day.

How to register to vote in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, you can register to vote online by filling out this form. You’ll need to fill in your name, birthdate, address, and Pennsylvania driver’s license or PennDOT ID number or the last four digits of your Social Security number. You can also choose to receive a mail-in ballot for this election and will automatically receive an annual application for mail-in ballots each year. 

You can also print out a copy of the voter registration, physically fill it out, and mail it to your county voter registration office. (Find the address to mail your registration by clicking on your county here and use the address listed under Voter Registration.) The county election office must receive your application by October 19.

You can register in person at the county voter registration office (again, find it here) by filling in the application and handing it to the clerk. Other locations where you can register in person include Pennsylvania Department of Transportation locations, armed forces recruitment centers, and state offices that provide public assistance and services to people with disabilities.

Check your voter registration status by typing in your name or driver’s license or PennDOT ID number here. This will tell you if you’re already registered or not.

Can I vote early?

Pennsylvania does not offer traditional in-person early voting, so if you were hoping to show up to your polling place some time before November 3 and duck into the machine to cast your vote, you’re out of luck. However, you can take your mail-in or absentee ballot (more on the difference between the two and how to get them in a sec) and physically submit it at a ballot drop box, your county election office, or one of several new satellite elections offices being proposed in counties like Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, and Bucks. (Locations for these satellite offices or drop boxes haven’t been announced.)

Can I vote by mail?

Yes! To vote by mail, you’ll need to request one of either two types of ballots: absentee or mail-in. While both kinds are sent to you and returned to the elections office by mail (or you can physically drop it off), they have some differences. Absentee ballots are for people who will be out of their home county on Election Day (students who live on-campus at school away from home, people traveling, members of the military) or those with an illness or disability. Mail-in ballots are for everyone else, no excuse needed. Registered voters can request one of these ballots three ways: By filling out an application online, printing it out and mailing it to their county elections office, or getting an application from their county elections office and completing and returning the form then and there. We’ll get into this below.

How to vote by mail in Pennsylvania

First, request an absentee or mail-in ballot by filling out the application here (info requested includes name, birthdate, where to send your ballot, and driver’s license/ID number or Social Security number). On that same website, you can download a hard copy of the form, print it out, fill it out by hand, and mail it back to your county elections office. You can also head to your county elections office, fill out the mail-in ballot application, and receive your ballot then and there.

In some cases, you can complete your mail-in ballot on the spot, and hand it right back to the elections office worker -- and you’ve voted. (But be sure to check with your county elections office first to make sure this is feasible, since each county has varied supply and demand. Some counties are setting up additional satellite offices to better handle same-day mail-in ballot requests and drop-offs.)

If you’re a service member or a citizen living outside of the US, you’ll need to fill out the federal absentee ballot form here. If you’re planning on voting by mail, your county elections office must receive your application by 5pm on October 27. But with USPS delays, it’s safest to apply for your mail-in ballot as soon as possible, so it gets to you in enough time for you to complete the ballot and return it. Once you’ve applied for your absentee or mail-in ballot, it will be mailed to the address you indicated on your application. Election officials anticipate voters will receive their vote by mail ballots in late September.

Now, to fill it out. Inside the envelope are instructions along with the blank ballot. Following the instructions, make your selections, then place your ballot in the secrecy envelope and then place that envelope inside the mailing envelope and seal it. Don’t forget to sign the envelope or your vote may not be counted. County election officials -- regular people -- use their discretion to match the signature on the envelope to your signature on file. A lawsuit is pending that seeks to give voters with signature mismatches a chance to correct the issue.

OK, now that you’ve got your completed, sealed, and signed mail-in ballot, it’s time to make sure it gets to the right place in time. The easiest way to do it is to place the already addressed and postmarked envelope into your residential or USPS mailbox. But because of all the potential delays, you’ll want to put it in the mailbox as soon as possible. The USPS recommends voters mail their completed ballots no less than one week before they're due, however, it’s best to play it safe and give yourself more time than that. All completed ballots must be postmarked no later than 8pm on Election Day, November, and received by election officials no later than 5pm on November 6. The previous deadline was Election Day, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court extended the deadline by three days in a September 17 ruling.

If you’re nervous about the potential of your ballot not getting to the elections office in time, you can drop it off in-person. If your county is getting the aforementioned satellite election offices, you can also drop off your ballot there, too. The state supreme court also ruled in favor of mailbox-style ballot drop off boxes (like in the primary), so it looks like that will be an option too. Ballot drop off boxes will pop up at as-yet unannounced locations. Just remember: Get those mail-in ballots in by 5pm on November 6!

Is there a way to track my mail-in ballot?

Yup! Fill out your name, birthdate, and county on this online form and you’ll be able to tell if your ballot was received. If you waited too late to mail your ballot, can’t tell if the county received your ballot, or it appears your ballot won’t be received by 5pm on November 6, you can go to your polling place, tell the poll workers you had an issue with mail-in voting, and they’ll give you a provisional ballot -- a temporary ballot you fill out by hand -- until officials can get things sorted. If it turns out that your completed mail-in ballot did not get to the elections office in time, your provisional ballot will be counted as your official vote. But if your mail-in ballot did get there in time, that vote counts and the provisional ballot will be tossed.

How can I stay safe while voting in person?

As with any in-person activity nowadays, it’s imperative to wear your mask and keep at least six feet of distance between you and other people. Be prepared to potentially wait in long lines, and remember, if you’re in line by 8pm (the time when the polls close), you are still eligible to vote -- so stay in line. The polls are open from 7am-8pm.

Here’s a rundown of what the CDC recommends:

  • Wear a mask. 
  • Keep a distance of at least six feet from others at all times.
  • Wash your hands both before and after leaving your polling location.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol frequently throughout your time inside the polling place, especially after you touch things like door hands, voting machines, and other surfaces that lots of other people touch.
  • If you cough or sneeze, cover them with a tissue or the inside of your elbow. Dispose of the tissues in a lined garbage can, then use that 60% alcohol hand sanitizer again. 
  • Don't try to disinfect the voting machine or equipment yourself because you may end up damaging them with cleaners and disinfectant products. This is where hand sanitizer comes in again. Use it right after you touch the voting equipment, and if you use it before you touch the equipment, make sure your hands have dried first. 
  • Try to vote when your polling place isn't as busy. This might involve driving by and checking to see how long the line is.
  • Verify that you're registered to vote before you leave home and make sure you bring any documents you'll need to avoid complications that could result in spending more time inside the polling place.
  • Bring your own black ink pen for marking your ballot, or your own stylus (just check with a polling place worker before you use it). 
  • If possible, fill out a sample ballot at home that you can use to speed up casting your ballot at the polling location.

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Allie Volpe is a Philadelphia-based contributor for Thrillist.